Psychoanalytic research methods: Description & Overview

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This article is an overview/summary of the primary research methods used by the classical theorists in the psychoanalytical school of thought. Here are broad methods as traditionally used by Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Erik Erikson.

There are 2 sections in this post. The first one is about 13 broad research methods used by these 3 theorists. The second one is about the modern research methods used to further research in psychoanalysis.

Some of them used the same method but with a radically different approach. For example, Freud and Jung both used dream analysis. Still, Freud interpreted them with his free association technique and Jung interpreted them with a basis of archetypes and interconnected dreams (details below).

Note: This article is a copy of my first blog-post which was also a class assignment during my undergrad. Please pardon the crudeness, most of it is without edits to mark the beginning of my blogging career.

A detailed overview of the research methodology used in psychoanalysis

Let us begin with a small introduction to the 3 theorists.

Please note that this article is an ‘as is’ article. Call this a history lesson in psychology.

The famous Psychoanalysts

1. Sigmund Freud: 

Born in 1856 to a Jewish family, Freud chose the path of science and got into medical school. He based his decision on the fact that the future of academic advancement would be poor looking at the Nazi control. He earned respect as a medical investigator after this choice he made and specialized in neurology. His initial work was based on the treatment of Hysteria and involved hypnosis along with a talking-out which was in vogue owing to a Viennese Physician named Joseph Breuer who in fact trained Freud in it. He later went solo and laid the foundation of the Freudian school of thought. His greatest contribution to the field of personality is the importance of the unconscious with respect to the intra-psychic interaction of Id, Ego and the Super Ego. He, later on, developed the psycho-sexual stages. We will not get into that discussion as the purpose of this essay is to evaluate the research methods.

2. Carl Jung: 

Carl Jung, born in Switzerland in 1875, was erudite. He earned the title of a psychiatrist with knowledge from a myriad of other disciplines including mythology, religion, alchemy, neurology, evolution, astrology, archaeology, etc. He began as a Padawan to Freud during their encounter with each other in the University of Clark, Massachusetts in 1909. For Freud, Jung was the worthy heir of the throne of Psychoanalysis, which is quite true to an extent but their approach took major turns, making them rivals, something like two Kings, two Kingdoms but one throne. Jung’s main contribution was partly influenced by Freud and Charles Darwin.

Although, his work is an astounding body of theories, constructs, and mechanisms uniquely created by him. He focused on inherited thoughts and memories which formed the collective unconscious which guided the personality to a high degree. He gave us the construct of archetypes which is a central part of his study. He gave us the Attitudes and the Functions which were potentials of every person’s cognition and not just typological in nature.

3. Erik Erikson: 

Erik Erikson was a contemporary in psychoanalytic theory. Born in 1902 who also studied at the University of Vienna and trained in psychoanalysis put a new developmental psychology as a dimension in his body of work. His major contribution falls in the psychoanalytic tradition because of his theory which gave 8 different stages in the development of a human. Each stage represented a conflict. His propositions emerged from the belief that every human has instinctive equipment which is highly malleable.

The research methods used in psychoanalysis

I’ve listed the research methods based on theorists.

SIGMUND FREUD’s Research Methodology

1. Single Case studies:

Freud used this method extensively in his study. Although most of his case studies are lost in time, 6 of his case studies have been published and well-reviewed. Freud was a scientist by nature, though critics won’t concur. His way of science was of Inductive reasoning and internal consistencies instead of hypothesis testing and deductive reasoning. For example, he would look for consistencies throughout his interactions with a patient and establish them if they made sense according to his theory over time, like his case study of Little Hans (1909). Most of his cases had a period of Free Association and Dream Analysis (we will look at these 2 shortly). His case study method was long and extremely detailed and was the primary source of his information. Some of the content might be falsely believed to be true, exemplified in his study of ‘The Wolf man’ (1918)[4], where neurotic symptoms may have led to delusional beliefs and false accounting of an experience. Although this was never externally validated by other people who could provide knowledge, Freud was satisfied by the internal consistency in dream interpretation.

2. Free association & Dream analysis:

These 2 methods were almost exclusively paired in his clinical setting. By free association, Freud meant speaking anything and everything that comes to one’s mind no matter how ridiculous the patient might judge it to be. He posited that all free association content would eventually exhibit a pattern. These free associations will eventually be paired with his method of dream analysis where conflicts, sexual tensions, repressions, etc., will symbolize, leading to the symptoms. Hence his method here would give him a gateway to the intra-psychic tension and would be used to ‘cure’ the patient. This combination has excellent internal validity, and the need for external validity is deemed unnecessary as there is access to the unconscious processes. For most of his patients, this worked. The manifestation of dreams was theorized to originate in the patient’s childhood, hence confirming with a conscious recollection is impossible. That assumption opens the possibility that some childhood-to-dream mechanisms were misinterpreted through the experimenter bias. Although, this method’s efficacy appears to rely on the sheer number of clinical sessions Freud completed.

3. Cathartic method:

As mentioned earlier, Freud spent his initial time with Joseph Breuer, who advocated this method. It involved hypnosis to recollect the original incident, which was presumably repressed, leading to the symptoms. While working with Anna O, he thought he could find a root cause and a cure to her symptoms by analyzing her free associations in a self-hypnotic state. When she related an event to a symptom while in a hypnotic state, her symptom would become terribly powerful and dramatic, but would then be purged, never to trouble her again. Her symptoms would amplify when she connected her state to a life event while under hypnosis. Her unconscious feelings would emerge and transform it conscious feelings, which he called “catharsis”. And it would purge her symptoms, presumably.


As evidently shown in movies, this method is that of the classical-clinical setting for Freud. He requested his patients to lie down on a comfortable couch in a manner that made sure that Freud was not seen (a control for killing inhibitions) directly. He first used this method for hypnosis during his hysteria study days and later for dream analysis and free association. He also used this setting for standard conversations and observing the patient.

5. Self analysis:

Freud relied on his own experiences for intuition and retrospective observation. He began self-analyzing his dreams in 1897 (Jones, 1953[5]). To his satisfaction, he confirmed his psychosexual stages in his self-analysis. He found the existence of the conflicts in himself. It is unknown how he resolved his deepest conflicts, but they generated insight into his therapy strategies. Critics state that this type of evidence was too metaphysical and pseudoscientific (Crew, 1996[6]).

*One should note that there isn’t much empirical data in the Freudian school of thought. Although Freud recorded all the data, there was no empirical analysis as such. But, there are modern studies which are experimental in nature which validate certain postulates.

We will now move towards Jungian research methods

CARL JUNG’s Research Methodology

6. Dream analysis:

For Jung, dream analysis was a whole different process. One must be familiar with the archetypes, anima, animus, and the shadow to understand it. His interpretation of dreams was based on 3 primary methods: One, The method of Amplification, which was to understand the dream elements with rich symbolic value. Unlike Free Association, the dreamer is supposed to give multiple associations to elements and not linearly progress through them. The second method was analyzing a series of dreams where the archetypal significance slowly unfolds in a series of interconnected dreams which reveal multiple events or instances of personal significance. This is one of the strongest therapeutic methods Jung used. The third method he used was Active Imagination, where the dreamer describes the changes in mental imagery (often dreamt) after concentration. These changes may be presented in an art form. In Jung’s method of dream analysis, a wider interpretation is possible revealing conflicts, complexes, archetypes, insights, etc., as opposed to Freud’s, which revealed defenses, conflicts, and sexual tensions. Jung had a more comprehensive approach. For some critics, this was a form of mysticism and absolutely unscientific in theory (Glover, 1950[7]).

7. Case studies:

Jung published a few case studies, but they were in no way comparable to the type of case histories published by Freud. He accounted for a few fantasies and analyzed them but were not characteristic in nature like Freud’s A case of Hysteria (Dora)[8]. Jung emphasized the cultural, mythological, and religious development of archetypes. It is seen that Jung (who may seem like a science fiction author but isn’t) had radical methods of obtaining material for his research. Case studies were not his primary approach.

8. Comparative studies:

Jung studied astrology, religion, and many other mythologies. It did not mean that he advocated their inferences. He looked at it as a Tour de force. His main discovery was the archetype of Mandala, which stands for unity and is represented by the alchemical transmutation circle. It makes perfect sense that cultural traditions that were predominant in society for centuries would leave strong archetypes. These postulates make sense in 2 other modern concepts: 1- adaptive memory and 2 – genetic memory. Jung stated that there is symbolic consistency with present-day problems in the patient’s life throughout all dreams from a series. He observed archetypal elements in various art forms, which unconsciously oozed out according to the artist’s personality. This method may have cemented everything Jung theorized.

9.Experimental study of complexes: 

This was Jung’s most scientific method (at least in the traditional sense). His contribution of the word association method along with physiological measurements reinforced a trend to combine supporting biological data with other psychological observations. In the word association method, a person is supposed to speak out the first word that comes to his/her mind after being presented with a standard set of words one by one. A psychogalvanometer[9] is used to measure the skin’s electrical resistance. A stopwatch is used to measure the word’s response time, and a pneumograph is used to measure breathing changes. Every change in reading and fluctuations during a word response indicated an underlying complex. Later there were inquiry periods with the patient, which (like a projective test) showered more conscious information on a complex.

Jung had empirical data for his research but a large portion of his theorizing was through intuition.

Now, let’s move toward the contemporary psychoanalyst: Erik Erikson

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ERIC ERIKSON’s Research Methodology

10. Case Histories:

Erikson did not publish too many case histories. The few focused on growth during the developmental phases. He focused on children, which other psychoanalysts neglected (an exception being Anna Freud, D/O Sigmund Freud). He studied cases with a historical & developmental approach to create a mix of literary and scientific accounting.

11. Psychohistories:

Psychohistories study individual and collective life using psychoanalysis and history together (Erikson, 1994[10]). He was interested in psychoanalyzing famous people, so he published books like Young Man Luther[11] and Gandhi’s Truth[12]. He found rich information into the concept of personality from this work. He had strict guidelines for psychohistories. The method was scientific and gave results in a developmental form in accord with his stage theories. A major problem with these is that there is very little evidence that the autobiographies match life experiences. Who is to say that the autobiographies aren’t colored by defense mechanisms, biases, confabulation, etc.?

12. Anthropological studies: 

Erikson compared primitive races and their children with his usual subjects. He explored consistencies and inconsistencies across different races and tribes. This resembles the processes of norm-setting in psychometrics. He made correlations between childhood training and adult traits.

13. Play situations: 

Erikson considered playing an “emotional laboratory[13]” for children where they learn to interact with the world meaningfully. In experimental studies, Erikson obtained gender-specific playing orientation[14], which later failed to replicate[15]. Nonetheless, play therapy[16] has transformed into a rigorous evidence-based approach. Play situations are almost always encouraged for their inherent benefits to a child’s psychological development. Considering how play is a natural part of a child’s life, Erikson saw it as a source of invaluable raw contextual data.

Modern Research Methods Used in Psychoanalysis

1. Experimental studies:

Researchers have used the experimental research methodology to validate psychoanalysis. For example, Lloyd Silverman et al. (1966, 1976, 1982, 1983) developed a research paradigm (Subliminal psychodynamic activation[17]) where subliminal emotional exposure intrudes the unconscious self. It typically uses subliminal presentations using a tachistoscope. This was perhaps the first thoroughly innovative experiment conducted to support psychoanalysis. To all critic’s surprise, experimental results[18] were in favor of the Freudian school of thought.

2. Empirical analysis of testing:

Based on Jung’s theory of personality, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) has been developed, and it yields 16 personality characteristics. It is moderately consistent with Jung’s theory and other psychometric tests like Eyesenck’s personality questionnaire. This has been the most influential tool developed over psychoanalysis in personality typology. However, the MBTI is NOT a valid assessment tool, according to modern research.

Another test with psychoanalytic assumptions is the Implicit Association Test, which is still used in clinics. In the IAT, researchers test the association or pairing between 2 words or concepts by measuring reaction time. Lower reaction times suggest stronger associations that are interpreted as “having a preference for.” IAT is highly controversial for its popular use in detecting biases, despite the test’s poor replicability[19]. Projective techniques like the Rorschach Ink Blot[20] or Thematic Apperception Test[21] are sufficiently used in clinical assessments, with varying usefulness. These tests can quantify constructs, and researchers can use them to gauge what techniques, what tests, and what conceptual assumptions have scientific validity.

3. Theoretical reinterpretation

Many concepts are re-conceptualized in a new context. For example, the ego can be considered as a subset of an independent self-construal. Such re-examination can allow psychoanalytic concepts to yield new insight. One approach is applying chaos theory to interpret psychological data. More specifically, a mathematical approach like chaos theory[22] can demonstrate how patterns re-appear while a system evolves. For example, childhood caregiving patterns evolve into adult attachment patterns, and they mimic each other in a new context. This is analogous to geometric self-similarity, except it occurs in the mind’s evolution through time, instead of a shape’s evolution in space. Newer research can focus on reframing psychoanalytical concepts based on their utility and predictive power – Is an old concept explaining something better than a new concept? If yes, what aspects are doing a better job?

4. Hypnosis and neuroimaging:

Joseph Breuer had much faith in hypnosis, and Freud discontinued the method. Neurological changes that occur during a session or recollection of violent, repressed memories can ground psychodynamic constructs in neurobiological models of mental health. Although Freud’s wish-fulfillment theory of dreams was inspired by neurobiology, his premise was questionable[23] due to the lack of neurobiological advancements.

We have overviewed 3 researchers here (Freud, Jung, and Erikson) and their characteristic research methods. Some of them have been scientific in nature, and most do not meet basic scientific criteria.

Today, many of the findings and methods used seem odd, obvious, or extraordinary. In my opinion, like a work of art, we must remember that they all came from a different era and laid the foundation for us. They opened the door for sophisticated research and helped modern research in many ways.

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